The invention of a tradition
“There was a pastry chef from Palermo called Salvatore Gulì, who, at the end of the nineteenth Century, decided he needed a specialty. At that point, his pastry kitchen on Corso Vittorio Emanuele began producing candied fruit on a near-exclusive basis. Like many Sicilians of tenacious mind, he set out to contradict a most deep-rooted opinion. Much like today, the reaction of a public faced with candied fruit at that time was predictable: repugnance. Nobody wanted it. Were it present, people were sure to separate and discard each piece with careful disdain.
The reason why Gulì convinced himself of the contrary, and believed that a candied fruit boom was on its way, remains unknown. The fact was that his pastry kitchen was soon crammed with butternut squash confection and preserved mandarin oranges. With his warehouse full and his business on the verge of bankruptcy, he had an epiphany, an idea that allowed him to recycle his fruit of God’s grace.
He took his cue from a dessert of very ancient origin- the cassata- in the version of his day, which we would now refer to as “cassata al forno” (“baked ricotta cake“) and went from there: a shell of “pasta frolla”, or pastry crust, dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, guarding a core of ricotta and chocolate. With this as a base, he worked from his imagination, and dressed the dessert with baroque style, pouring a sugar icing over the whole thing and mounting candied fruit on top as a garnish. Anyone was now free to ditch the decoration and savor the rest. The result was promptly named “Cassata Siciliana” so as to eliminate even a shade of competition from the most modest original cassata, which had suddenly lost its identity. The luck of the newborn dessert, and its inventor, was to have found a tremendous promotional vehicle.
The wealthy Florio family, which hosted royalty and aristocracy in Palermo from all over Europe, chose this new cassata as their signature gift. These guests of the Florio family left Palermo as involuntary testimonials, convinced that this colored mass of sugars represented the true Sicily. “Instead, it embodied only the facade.”